Manapouri: Art, Power, Protest

Manapouri is one of New Zealand’s Great Southern Lakes, a jewel of the Fiordland National Park. This glacial lake spreads itself over four arms dotted with small coves, sandy beaches and 35 islands, all framed by the towering Cathedral Mountains. It has been called ‘Majestic Manapouri’, ‘Magnificent Manapouri’, and ‘New Zealand’s loveliest lake’.

Before the arrival of the European, the lake had other names. Waitaha called it Roto-ua ‘the rainy lake’, and later, Moturau, ‘multitude of islands’. The current name is a corruption of Manawapore, ‘the lake of the sorrowful heart’. Like many of the myths and stories surrounding the lake, this name moves beyond the descriptive to capture the mystery and drama of an evocative landscape. According to one account, the lake was created from the spilled tears of Koronae and Moturau, sisters who were separated and lost while wandering this land.

But the Lake Manapouri of today is largely a European invention, the product of new ways of looking at, marking and using the land. This exhibition examines a set of Pākehā responses to Manapouri that cast the lake in very different roles—as a symbol to be created, a resource to be harnessed, and an icon to be preserved. Manapouri is explored as a site for art, industrial development, and environmental protest.

Artists flocked to the lake through the late-19th and early-20th centuries, armed with sketchbooks, cameras, and the conventions of European landscape painting. The image of Lake Manapouri was soon fixed through concepts of picturesque beauty and sublime grandeur.

Engineers and entrepreneurs saw the lake in another way—as a source of hydroelectric energy. This vision was realised with the construction of the Manapouri power station in the late 1960s, one of this country’s most ambitious and controversial industrial developments. A plan to maximise output by raising the lake’s natural levels was met with a wave of protest. The subsequent campaign to ‘Save Manapouri’ was New Zealand’s first nationally co-ordinated environmental movement, and is often credited with awakening a ‘green consciousness’.

Manapouri: Art, Power, Protest looks beyond the picture-perfect scenic views of the lake presented on tourist postcards. This exhibition insists that Lake Manapouri is more than just a body of water. It is a heavily contested, culturally charged site that occupies a complex position in New Zealand’s history.

National Library Gallery, 30 November 2007–15 March 2008